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Caleb Ewan to get first dibs at Milano-Sanremo in Philippe Gilbert swansong

Australian puts Italian monument at top of list in what will be Gilbert's last shot at monument 'sweep.'

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There’s no room for romance in professional bike racing, especially when it comes to a monument as important as Milano-Sanremo.

Though it’s still early days, Lotto-Soudal will likely be giving Caleb Ewan first dibs next spring at the Italian classic even though it will be the last chance for Philippe Gilbert and his elusive “monument sweep.”

Speaking to journalists at a Lotto-Soudal media event last week, Ewan confirmed that targeting the Italian monument — where he’s twice finished second — will be at the top of his priorities in 2022.

That might mean the team will relegate Gilbert, who retires next season, to second fiddle in his quest to join the elite group of riders who’ve won all five of cycling’s so-called monuments.

“I do not yet know my program and we must discuss it with the sports management,” said the Australian, according to Belga Agence, who was quick to add that Milano-Sanremo is already marked on his calendar.

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“I’ve been close to victory twice already there and I would obviously like to win once. I can’t wait to be there,” Ewan said. “Moreover, Philippe Gilbert will also probably be at the start.

“He can be the second leader,” he said. “That’s ideal to help keep me out of the wind. And if I’m not having a good day, he can finish the job. I’m also very happy that my sprint gear has been stepped up.”

Ewan and Gilbert both said their respective racing calendars for next season are not yet finalized, but it’s likely that each will line up at the Italian monument.

Last year, Ewan won the bunch sprint behind the attacking Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), who was nearly caught at the line but hung on for a dramatic victory.

SANREMO, ITALY - MARCH 20: Arrival / Jasper Stuyven of Belgium and Team Trek - Segafredo Celebration, Michael Matthews of Australia and Team BikeExchange, Alex Aranburu Deba of Spain and Team Astana – Premier Tech, Peter Sagan of Slovakia and Team Bora - Hansgrohe, Wout Van Aert of Belgium and Team Jumbo - Visma, Mathieu Van Der Poel of Netherlands and Team Alpecin-Fenix & Caleb Ewan of Australia and Team Lotto Soudal during the 112th Milano-Sanremo 2021 a 299km race from Milano to Sanremo / #MilanoSanremo / La Classicissima / #UCIWT / on March 20, 2021 in Sanremo, Italy. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
Caleb Ewan was second to Jasper Stuyven in 2021. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

One last shot at monument sweep for Gilbert

For Gilbert, who confirmed he will return at the end of 2022, it will be one final shot at winning all five of cycling’s monuments.

“I do not yet know my program, but in any case, I want to take advantage of each of the last kilometers,” Gilbert said during the press briefing of his Lotto-Soudal team. “It is quite difficult to explain what I really expect from this last season.”

Also read: Gilbert sees 2021 Tour de France as his last

Gilbert, who will turn 40 in July, confirmed earlier this year his 2022 season will be his last.

“I think at some point you have to stop,” Gilbert said in the spring. “It will be a 20-year career, a little over 600,000 km at the highest level. My engine is still not bad. And at some point, you also have to be to say that there is not only cycling in life, even if it occupies a very important place. There is the family, too. I think that I have sacrificed a lot of things in my life and it is time to enjoy other things.”

The last of his career 78 wins came in 2019, and his best result in a major race since joining Lotto-Soudal in 2020 was fifth in the Omloop Het Nieuwblad in February.

Gilbert is as close as anyone’s come in a long time to equaling the monument sweep.

The monument “grand slam” is one of cycling’s most prestigious and elusive goals. The five one-day races are among cycling’s longest, most difficult, and most prestigious titles. Only three riders — Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, and Rik Van Looy — have managed to win all five.

Gilbert has won four of the five, with only San Remo remaining an elusive target.

In 2021, Gilbert could not match the pace over the Poggio, and rolled across the line 72nd.

In 17 career starts, Gilbert twice finished third — in 2008 and 2011 — at the Italian spring monument.

“I will give my best at the start of each race anyway,” Gilbert said. “We will soon define with the team what we are doing.”

Philippe Gilbert will retire in 2022. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

Lotto-Soudal extends with Ridley through 2026

Lotto-Soudal also confirmed it will stay with Ridley bikes through 2026.

Ewan, who joined Lotto-Soudal in 2019, said he’s happy to stay with the same bike for the next few seasons.

“For three seasons, my Ridley Noah Fast Disc and I took part in the most important competitions in the world. And I can safely say that it has been a winning combination. And why tinker with a winning team?” Ewan said.

“That’s why I’m very happy that we will continue to work with Ridley in the coming seasons,” he said. “It’s amazing to be able to rely on their extensive expertise. As a professional cyclist, it gives you a nice feeling that our feedback is used to continuously improve the bikes. I think that’s one of the most important keys to success.”

Florian Vermeersch, left, Caleb Ewan and Philippe Gilbert of Lotto-Soudal at a press conference last week. (Photo: ERIC LALMAND/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)